Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Corner in Montparnasses

For the reader, the delight of a walk in any direction in central Paris is coming upon a street, a building plaque, or a café that notes its association with a writer. A walk in Montparnasses is a reminder of American writers in the 1920s who often met in the cafés there. Since the 1400s when Francois Villon, considered the first author in Paris, wrote “The Ballad of the Hanged Men” while in his jail cell—he was convicted of murder—Paris attracted disaffected and unconventional artists from around the world who wanted space to exercise intellectual freedom. Before 1900 writers came from America, many of which are chronicled in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, imagines a contemporary aspiring American novelist, Gil Pender, time-traveling to the 1920s. In the 1920s, American writers who came to Pairs often met at cafés in Montparnasses.

At the beginning of the 20th century to escape the tourists and the mafia, artists from Montmartre on the right bank began to migrate to Montparnasses on the left bank. The opening of a metro line in 1910 between Montmartre and Montparnasses hastened the departure of many artists from the right bank, but also kept the connection between the two artists’ enclaves.

In the 17th century, Montparnasses, named for the home of the god of poetry, Apollo, was a ruble heap that attracted university poets. The following two centuries the area was ignored by most artists. Chateaubriand and Balzac, who because of their financial woes, did choose to live in this cheap neighborhood. Today, Rodin’s Balzac overlooks the intersection of Blvd. du Montparnasses, Blvd. Raspail, and Rue Delambre in Montparnasses. The intersection is known as Place Pablo Picasso and can be accessed from the No. 4 metro line at the Vavin station (named for Alexi Vavin, 1792-1865, a statesman who opposed the coup of Napoleon III). Here in the heart of artistic Montparnasses several eateries dominate the corners. At these cafés, writers met, wrote, and explored ideas and tourists swarmed to get a glimpse of them in the 1920s.

Le Dôme
The oldest café and restaurant at this location opened in 1898. Le Dôme, when facing northeast toward the Montparnasses Tower, is on the left. From the beginning, this café attracted bohemian artists and models and until WWI, German and northern Europeans. After WWI, Americans came attracted to Paris because it was cheap, liquor was available, and its lack of priggishness. Le Dôme’s huge terrassa, now mostly glassed-in, became the “home” for American writers, artists, and journalists. The regulars, writers many of whom already had achieved some success, were terrible snobs. An often repeated encounter at Le Dôme happened one night where Sinclair Lewis, then "a hugely successful author of Main Street and Babbitt, was overheard boasting about one of his books on the terrace, [when] someone at a table shouted, 'Sit down, you’re just a best seller.'" One of the habitués was American writer and publisher Robert McAlmon, best known as publisher of Hemingways’s first book in 1923, Ten Stories and Ten Poems.

Across the street on the sunny right-hand corner of Blvd. du Montparnasses is the La Rotunde café and restaurant. This establishment, started as a tiny workman’s bar in 1904, was the artistic hub of Montparnasses. After the war, the expats took over. In 1922, Hemingway, reporting for the Toronto Star, wrote of this place:
The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Pairs adjacent to the Café Rotonde…. They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition….The artists of Paris who are turning out creditable work resent and loathe the Rotonde crowd.
Ten years later, Henry Miller used this café to pursue Anaïs Nin and write his several novels that would be banned in America for two decades.

A few doors down from the La Rotonde is LeSeléct, which opened in 1925. It is remembered for its Welsh Rarebit, which is mentioned in several stories, including Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In July 1929, Hart Crane got roaring drunk at LeSeléct, slugged a waiter and a cop and tangled with several lawmen until they knocked him cold and dragged him feet first to jail. Such behavior was not exclusive to this café.

La Rotonde
Across the Boulevard Montparnasses a few doors down from Le Dôme is the LaCupola, which opened in 1927 and is known for its Art Deco style. This restaurant was the symbol of the daring of the Roaring Twenties. Josephine Baker, who came with her cheetah on a leash, was a regular. By the 1930s, LaCupola became the favorite haunt of Henry Miller and his cronies when he got tired of the La Rotonde.

Especially with the Americans, the most popular café was the Dingo, which opened in 1923. Located around the corner from Le Dôme on rue Delambre, the Dingo was where, in 1925, Hemingway was drinking with two friends when F. Scott Fitzgerald walked in and introduced himself. Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. Though the two authors were often together, in Hemingway’s account of the period in A Moveable Feast, he trashed Fitzgerald. Hemingway described Fitzgerald: “his chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose….The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.” The Dingo became a Venetian restaurant that did not retain the name.

The gathering places are now pricey restaurants for those with expense accounts. (A vegetable entrée and a glass of wine - $50!) Some still have an outdoor café where one can sip a favorite beverage, open a notebook, and write or sketch while imaging being an Americans in Paris in the 1920s. When the Americans of the 1920s gathered on this corner, they mingled with French, Spanish, Russian, German, Japanese, and other artists from around the world. Gertrude Stein’s salon and other gatherings also brought this diverse community together. What did the Parisians and other émigrés think of the Americans? In John Richardson’s Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though considered talented, were often described as buffoonish and outrageous, behavior often fueled by alcohol. For Hemingway, the out-of-control Zelda Fitzgerald, who loathed Hemingway—the feeling was mutual—and her ever protective husband Scott were tolerated but unwelcome companions. They and other American artists were acquainted with influential Americans who increasingly became financial patrons and buyers of non-Americans works. These Americans included Gerald and Sara Murphy, John dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish and, of course, Gertrude Stein.

One of the frustrations in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris was the chronicle ended around 1900, though Americans in Paris during the post WWI Jazz Age provided Americans with wonderful, once daring literature. After WWII, another wave of Americans made the Greater Journey including Russell Wright and James Baldwin, who came to discuss existentialism and politics as well as write about their experiences at home.

Shakespeare & Co.
Though no longer in the Odeon, the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore was a haven for English writers. From 1919 to just before WWII, the owner, Sylvia Beach, encouraged and supported American and British writers. In 1922, Beach created a “literary earthquake” when she published James Joyce’s Ulysses. The bookstore is now located on the left bank facing Notre Dame. In today’s bookstore the owners have two floors crammed with English language books – some new and some old. On the second floor is a room with two metal cots and an upright piano, and under the stairs are a couple of carrels with Underwood and Remington typewriters—a re-creation of the haven for starving writers trying to realize a dream in Paris. Sometimes the line to get in the new Shakespeare & Co. is long, but once inside you will find a book that was a part of someone’s greater journey and perhaps awakens in you a midnight revelry.

by Diane Rafuse


Valeris Bougault. Paris Montparnasses: The Heyday of Modern Art 1910-1940. Terrail. Paris. 1997.
David Burke. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light. Counterpoint. Berkeley CA.2008.
David McCullough. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Simon & Schuster. 2011.
John Richardson. Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007.
Midnight in Paris. 2011. Director Woody Allen.

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